Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Gillard shepherds media reform laws towards reality

Oakeshott (left) and Windsor.
It appears that the prime minister has shown typical aplomb in the negotiations surrounding the proposed media reform laws that have excited so much unwarranted animosity from Australia's press, especially the News Ltd press. In a paywalled story in News Ltd's Australian that focuses exclusively on the bargaining Julia Gillard has conducted over the past couple of days, we learn that:
After caucus criticism of the handling of the media laws, Labor last night secured the support of Labor cum independent MP Craig Thomson, who had cast doubt on the reforms on Monday. Mr Thomson emerged as a key figure late yesterday by switching camps to support an amended regulator. 
Labor is also understood to have the support of Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt and independents Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Peter Slipper to ensure a lower house majority when debate on the changes resumes today. 
The talks appear likely to see legislation pass this week to create a new regulator to oversee the "public interest" in media mergers and press standards.
There is no detail in the story about how Gillard has amended Labor's plans in order to secure this support for the legislation. (That is contained in another paywalled story on the website: 'PM forced into strategic redraft.' and there's more from the ABC: 'Two of Labor's media bills approved.') It's a pure horse-race spiel from the News Ltd journalists who wrote it. In fact, information about support for the media reform package is interlaced in the story with speculation about leadership challenges that have been mooted here and there over the past couple of days. (What such stories would do well to mention, in all cases, is the unwillingness of independent Tony Windsor to countenance a change. He has said each time he's interviewed after such speculation that his continued support for Labor is conditional on Gillard remaining as PM.)

The story continues with: "The Australian understands independent MP Rob Oakeshott has confirmed privately that he cannot support the package." Rob Oakeshott certainly seems to be bent on rejecting the media reform package. On Twitter, I've delivered links to him for blogposts written at various times on this blog that outline the propensity of News Ltd to breach its obligations to fairness and balance - obligations under Press Council rules that it agrees to conform to - but Oakeshott only retweeted one of these links: 'Journos self-censor to get ahead at News Ltd.' The blogpost dates from early December 2011 and hinges on a story published by The Conversation that included words from an ex-employee of News Ltd saying that:
Proprietors aren’t hands-on pulling the strings. They set a tone. The tone is known to the editor. The tone is set at News Ltd through various statements by the proprietor, by Rupert [Murdoch]; the tone tends to be disseminated through things like annual conferences where the News Ltd editors come together and a kind of group-speak develops. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the case that the proprietor tells the editors or the reporters what to put in the papers – generally.
It's interesting that the person quoted here is basically saying that, on certain issues, there is no fairness or balance, but certainly a campaigning attitude. (Whether that is due to direct orders from the top is moot, as fairness and balance are obligations for all news media who belong to the Press Council. You can't erase a lesser evil by demonstrating the absence of a greater one.) The blogpost also contains a link to a post on my blog about Robert Manne's year-long study of the Australian, which had been published in September of the same year. (You can also read a blogpost about that newspaper's response to Manne's essay, from a few days later, but this is not linked in the post Oakeshott retweeted.)

I have to thank Oakeshott for retweeting the link, but I wonder why he didn't also retweet another link I directed to him, about the case of Asa Wahlquist, a former News Ltd journalist who complained in 2010 about editorial interference in her coverage of climate change. And also I think that in the quote that appears above the use of the word "generally" is telling, because there seem to be some issues - as Manne pointed out in his 2011 essay - on which News Ltd papers have decided views, regardless of facts. Climate change is one of these, clearly, as, also clearly, is the issue of the media reform laws currently under discussion.

As for balance, the Australian seems to have got the message, in part at least, because elsewhere in the Australian today we've got Ray Finkelstein addressing the Senate committee (paywalled) that is examining the matter of media reform. In part, this story says:
The proposed Public Interest Media Advocate would have "limited powers", Mr Finkelstein said, while warning the inquiry, led by Labor senator Doug Cameron, that examinations of media regulation "could get terribly distracted if the object of the exercise was to look for press failings". 
In his report, he said: "It struck me as very odd that any group in society that wields enormous power should be wholly, or substantially, unregulated." 
"There are no powerful groups in society that can come along to governments or anybody and say, 'we can do what we like, when we like, and there's nothing you should do about it'," Mr Finkelstein said. 
He described this attitude as "a very surprising approach".
Finkelstein, who wrote the original report on media reform after the inquiry that is generally referred to using his own name, also said that Labor's media reform bill "is a relatively minor imposition on press freedom and probably no restriction on free speech".

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